[Viewpoint] Our political killing fields

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[Viewpoint] Our political killing fields

A tear gas canister was set off in the National Assembly. The weapon, so symbolic of dictators of our past suppressing the movement for democracy, has now been used in a chamber that is the heart of our democracy. The lawmaker who wielded the weapon, who is from a radical left-wing party, may have been trying to portray himself as a rebel activist, but he should have known from the democracy protests of the 1980s that such violence has no place in democratic politics.

The ruling Grand National Party prompted the tear gas protest by railroading the free trade deal with the United States through the Assembly. The clock of Korean politics has turned backward to before the 1980s, when democracy had been snuffed out in this land. In a cloud of tear gas around the Assembly speaker’s podium, we witnessed the demise of mainstream political life in a savage gesture that has become characteristic of our politics.

Things weren’t this bad even when the then-ruling Uri Party discussed its own disintegration in late 2006 ahead of presidential elections. Five years later, politics on Yeouido, where the National Assembly is located, have lost the ability to fulfill the role of dealing with major state affairs and mediate conflicting opinions among the populace. On Saturday, the government didn’t hesitate to command the police to fire water cannon at civilians, and angry protesters retaliated by assaulting police officers. It was a rude wake-up call: We have more imperative domestic issues to tend to - a broken-down political system - than winning a trophy free trade deal with the U.S.

The act of setting off the tear gas canister by Representative Kim Sun-dong of the Democratic Labor Party was not only a type of political suicide. It dealt a fatal blow to the entire political system. In the killing fields of the old guard, new forces are quickly sprouting. Civilians are rallying around any figure who promises to breathe new life into Korean politics. Radical, centrist and liberal forces are busy courting and mating to create new parties. Names of potential leaders are breathlessly announced and then they’re urged to spearhead some kind of new political movement, any kind of new politics.

Standing out among the newcomers is software mogul and professor Ahn Cheol-soo, who now leads polls of potential candidates to run in next year’s presidential candidate. Ahn, despite his standing in the polls and among passionate fans, remains evasive.

But many expect him to eventually declare his political ambitions and run with them. Bets are that he will form a new party by Christmas in order to be ready for the general election in April. His party - sheerly because Ahn is behind it - will intimidate mainstream political parties and excite civilians. Given his character and track record, we can make some assumptions about what his party will represent.

As he has done so far, Ahn will likely maintain a low profile and a veil of mystery. He may put forward his patrons to publicly run the party: Park Kyung-chul, a doctor and partner in his popular lecture series attended by many university students; Yoon Yeo-joon, a former education minister; and Buddhist leader Venerable Pomnyun. Members will likely be people claiming to be privy to the pains of the disaffected young in Korean society.

The party will be run in cyberspace and through social networking services. It will probably introduce a new paradigm in party politics. A party gauging, gathering and representing the opinions of supporters through social network services could send a shock wave through mainstream politics. Ahn will be like the Wizard of Oz, controlling the party from behind a curtain.

Most of Ahn’s stardom has to do with his enigmatic character, tantalizing political iconoclasm and unpredictability. Run-of-the-mill comments from his mouth suddenly have weight. He does not need to say things clearly because his supporters more than willingly dress up his comments in the contexts they desire. His army of young fans has fun using their imaginations to attack and upset the elite, and they don’t put much store by common sense.

Ahn can control the party by using the right code to trigger excitement and rage among his supporters. Like cloud computing delivering resources and information through the Internet, he would be running a cloud party behind a computer. Clouds are volatile and fluid according to the weather and temperature and the party can respond to various demands transmitted by the young generation.

It is the best way to do business for a reclusive and introverted person like Ahn. But if his cloud party gains momentum through the general election and gains real status, he may no longer be able to stay hidden within his cloud. He would be pressured to come forward and run as a real candidate in the presidential election.

He may be ready to make a statement then: “There comes a time when one cannot control his own destiny.” Many in cyberspace expect Ahn to be the prime mover behind a new party. The people most impacted are the other potential presidential candidates from mainstream parties.

Park Geun-hye, long dubbed the most promising candidate from the conservative side, may be most disturbed. Those still familiar with the analog age and 20th century-style politicking may question if such a fluid, user-friendly and digital-minded party could work.

But as old technology is quickly replaced by new in this rapidly changing age, the old, offline political methods could become dinosaurs. It’s a pity that mainstream parties and politicians are too busy fighting to see that a cloud is looming, with its elusive leader watching their every move.

*The writer is a professor of sociology at Seoul National University.

By Song Ho-keun
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